By Ralph P. Locke
We normally think of operas as being either serious or comical. But a number of operas—some familiar, others forgotten—are neither of these. Instead, they are fantastical, dealing with such things as the fairy world and sorcerers, or with the world of dreams. One of the best such works is Ravel’s 1925 one-act opera L’enfant et les sortilèges (which might be freely translated as “The Boy Who Meets Objects and Creatures that Magically Begin to Speak and Dance”).<1> An engaging Czech opera from 1933 by Otakar Ostrčil is based on a quasi-folktale by Tolstoy, in which the Devil seeks to seduce three brothers into serving his own destructive ends.<2>
Another such tall-tale opera is, like the Ostrčil, less well known than the Ravel, perhaps because it is Swedish, a language that few know. Fortunately, Swedish, unlike Czech, is at least partly familiar-looking to people who know German. Or who have sat through lots of Ingmar Bergman films.
The work is Svart ä vitt—sa Kejsaren (Black Is White, Said the Emperor), a largely comical, sometimes touching or sardonic tale, first performed in 1965, by a composer whose own life story was full of all-too-real drama.<3>
Laci Boldemann (1921-69) was born in Helsinki to a distinguished family that was half-Swedish, half-German. His grandfather Arvid Järnefelt was a well-known Swedish author whose sister Aino was married to the composer Jean (or Jan) Sibelius. Boldemann studied in Germany, then in England and Sweden, but, because of his German father, was conscripted into the Nazi army. He became gravely ill on the eastern front. Later, in Italy, he deserted and was brought to the United States and put in a prison camp. After the end of World War II, he settled in Sweden, where his maternal grandparents lived. He succeeded in having a number of his works performed by major orchestras and opera companies in Germany and Sweden. But he died suddenly from complications after a gallstone surgery in Munich when he was only 48.
Black Is White, Said the Emperor (Svart är vitt, sa kejsaren) is the first of his two full-length operas. The only currently available recording, a fine one, was made at the world-premiere performance, on January 1, 1965, at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. (It can be heard, broken into numerous segments here.) The scenario was drafted by Laci’s wife Karin Katz Boldemann. It was fleshed out into a libretto by Lennart Hellsing, a noted author of children’s books and nonsense literature.
Boldemann’s musical style is very traditional and straightforward, making playful use of various modernistic techniques while maintaining a clear tonal center, somewhat in the manner of “neoclassical” Prokofiev or Stravinsky. In Sweden, Boldemann is still known today for some endearing choral songs. Lovers of solo vocal music may know his fourteen-minute song cycle with orchestra, Four Epitaphs, Op. 10, which uses four poems from Edgar Lee Masters’s famous Spoon River Anthology (a collection of poems about the citizens of a modest small town). The work takes one startlingly modernistic turn in a passage consisting entirely of electronic sounds (described further below).
The eventful plot takes place in an unnamed “Oriental” walled city, apparently somewhere along the Silk Road. (The locale is thus an exoticist stereotype, not any real place on the map.) The storybook quality is already apparent in the list of the various characters, all of whom are “types” rather than individuals (the Boy, the Princess, etc.)—somewhat like the characters in Prokofiev’s jaundiced fairy-tale opera The Love for Three Oranges (1921). Similarly, the nameless Doctor who examines the Boy, while uttering meaningless pseudo-medical chatter, seems like a less menacing version of the crazed and equally nameless physician in Wozzeck (1925). But nobody and nothing in this family-friendly opera stays menacing for long.
Chorus, dancers, and orchestra
The work consists of numerous short scenes, most of which involve quick exchanges between several characters. There are few extended separable numbers that could help advertise the opera, which is perhaps one reason that it has sunk from view. Still, in Act 1 scene 5, the Boy gets a number of short songs that are quite appealing: often diatonic or folkish-modal and built of easily grasped foursquare phrases. There is also an immensely appealing tune from Act 1 scene 7 that recurs several times and that sounds like something out of a Franz Lehár operetta (such as the oft-performed Die lustige Witwe [The Merry Widow], 1905).
The Princess first sings the tune, her words referring to the handsome Prince who, riding by her window on a white horse, stole her heart. When the Prince and Princess try to sing it together, the hot-headed emperor cuts them short. (The lovers will get to sing the whole tune at the end of the opera, then walk off slowly into a happy future.)
The duet-interruption is typical: the opera is marked by much purposeful discontinuity (a typical feature of modernism), and the discontinuity is sometimes emphasized by an unexpected shift to a new harmonic area. The net result of all these tuneful moments and sudden dislocations is refreshing to the ear. At various points, the music briefly sounds pseudo-Asian (or maybe pseudo-Middle Eastern), then quickly veers back, which in itself amounts to another element of purposeful, perhaps slightly “alienating” discontinuity.
Three ensembles are particularly effective. The quintet near the end of Act 1 seems inspired, to good effect, by the Te Deum finale of Act 1 of Puccini’s Tosca (1900). A rhythmically intriguing trio in Act 2 scene 7 is sung largely in unison—sometimes unaccompanied, other times with alert orchestral punctuation. And a trio toward the end, during which the Runner and the Fool prepare to eject the Boy from the city, has the quality of a distorted, possibly sardonic, Viennese waltz. Many sections of the score are quasi-developmental. In some of these, an orchestral instrument or section of the orchestra expands on a phrase that a character has just sung or gives it a new twist. At times, such as early in Act 2, scene 1 (involving, as in the later trio, the Runner, the Fool, and the Boy), the vocal parts are highly naturalistic in nature, while a chamber ensemble from within the orchestra keeps up a busy discussion of its own, ratcheting up the tension. Yet, by the end of that same scene, the focus is entirely on those same three characters, echoing each other’s words mechanically, as if they were so many puppets. Perhaps Ostrčil was here inspired by the stiff, angular, pointedly inorganic motions (and music) of the three puppets in Stravinsky’s Petrushka ballet (1911).
Typical for Sweden in the 1960s, there is a “modern technology” element: the brief appearance of electronic sounds near the end of the opera, when an auspicious star is seen in the sky. (Click here and forward to 2’35”—where orchestra yields to electronic tape.) The implication is that the emperor has seen the astonishing (and here noisy) Star announcing Jesus’s birth. He removes his crown, places it on the Boy’s head, and marches off in the direction of the Star, thus apparently becoming one of the famous Three Kings who, bearing gifts, visit the Christ child.
Electronically derived sounds, a high-modern resource, had been used six years earlier in a Swedish opera whose recording was widely reviewed at the time: Karl-Birger Blomdahl’s outer-space fantasy Aniara. Perhaps the brief but rather crude electronic track in Black Is White, Said the Emperor (which the composer did not create; the realization in the recorded performance is credited to Karl-Otto Valentin) could be replaced by something more sophisticated, in order to prevent the work from being forever anchored to the era of Sputnik and the Univac computer. Nevertheless, Boldemann’s creative output, generally, is worthy of more study and attention than it has received thus far.
The above article is freely adapted from a review (of the recording’s CD re-release) that I first published in American Record Guide, OperaToday.com, and NewYorkArts.net.Those versions contain an assessment of the recorded performance as well. The present version appears by kind permission of American Record Guide.
<1> Ravel’s two one-act operas, both fantastical (and modernistic) in their separate ways, are explored in Emily Kilpatrick, The Operas of Maurice Ravel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
<2> I describe Ostrčil’s Honzovo království (Jack’s Kingdom; 1933), and its only recording, here.
<3> Biographical information about Boldemann and his family can be found at http://runeberg.org/vemarvem/sthlm62/0204.html and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laci_Boldemann, as well as in the booklet essay, by his son Marcus Boldemann, in the recording of the opera under discussion, Sterling 2 CDs, CDO 1111/1112-2. The recording is also available as a digital download (though without a digital booklet) and on Spotify and other streaming services.
Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). He reviews recordings and books for Notes (the journal of the Music Library Association), the Boston Musical Intelligencer, the Boston arts blog The Arts Fuse, and for other periodicals.